Monday, 23 February 2015

A Different Perspective on 50 Shades of Grey

I didn’t imagine that my next blog on here would be about 50 Shades of Grey. Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are. It’s a movie that currently scores 4.1 on IMDb and is full of one star reviews. I’m going to stick my neck out though and say that I think the film deserves more credit. I know it didn't have a great foundation, but maybe that has skewed some people's perspective on it. Perhaps it's time to put the whip down, step back and see the bigger picture.

Let’s get a few things out the way before I explain…

1.    Yes, I have read the book. As it happens, it was given to me by my Shadows of a Stranger co-director (we give each other a lot of warped gifts). I’ll summarise my feelings on the book by just saying I didn’t like it. In fact, at the time I made a funny about it:

It's funny. Laugh. Haha. Hahaha.

2.    I’ve never been a big believer in being ‘faithful’ to books. It always depends on the book of course – certain books might deserve a lot of delicate respect in bringing to the screen but I don't think that 50 Shades of Grey is one of those. I believe that filmmakers should have the creative freedom to have their own take on a story, even if it means changing characters and narrative from the book, not pedestrianly copying exactly what we already know. We all see things differently, we all take away our own things from films / books / songs through our personal perspective. Whatever, I think the 50 Shades of Grey film project was crying out for someone to step back a bit and try and make sense of the whole phenomenon, which maybe was Sam Taylor-Johnson's approach.
3.    50 Shades the book felt to me as though EL James was just getting down her own personal fantasy, and I think it's documented that this essentially was the creative journey, the book starting out as fan fiction. Although I think the book is a bit trashy, in doing so she kind of did come up with some good ideas. It’s a bit like panning for gold – there were some nuggets in what she shat out of her head, but it took a bit of swishing about (by further development through the change of medium) for the gold to really become apparent from the silt.
4.    I have seen 50 Shades of Grey twice now, which is now making me sound like some sort of perv, but it wasn't like that, honest. It’s not that I was rushing back to see it. I mean, I did want to see it the first time because I was interested to see what they were going to make of the book. After the first visit, I didn’t really know what to make of it. I didn’t think it was bad, but I didn’t know if I liked it either. It did make me think though, and when I saw it again, I watched it in the light of the thoughts I’d been having, and then I saw some of that gold.
5.    I do see similarities between 50 Shades and Shadows of a Stranger. I mean, look at the time we had when we were shooting our film: 

Don't ask.
Okay, so we don't really have a lot in common, on the surface at least. What I would say about the Shadows of a Stranger process, creating a film on blue screen, is that it really tunes you into your use of mise-en-scene, what objects, colours etc. you use to compose your shots. It's exciting to think you have limitless control over what you put in the background, and precise control over each shot (still wondering why it took us so long to make our film?) I really recommend making a film this way. But anyway, it's this mise-en-scene aspect, and the use of symbolism and themes that I viewed 50 Shades with.
6.    What has intrigued me about the whole 50 Shades phenomenon is how it has tapped into the public consciousness, how it has become part of the zeitgeist. I don’t think it’s just because a load of horny housewives are fantasizing about getting their arses slapped, I think it’s something more deeper and psychological than that. You could say that 50 Shades the book came to prominence because of some cynical ploy to jump-start the struggling traditional publishing industry, and yeah maybe there’s some truth in that, but I don’t think it came to prominence purely through chance. I think there might be something deeper that makes it resonate with so many people.
Let me take the example of a film with another ‘shark’… Jaws, which is one I happened to be thinking about recently. Three guys go out in a boat to kill a shark that’s been terrorising a seaside town. That’s the surface of the film, but why was that film successful? Yes, it was expertly made, expertly acted, expertly scored etc. etc. But what aspects of the 1975 psyche might it have tapped into? The film came out around the time the Vietnam war was ending, America withdrawing after going to fight communists in a foreign arena. In going to battle the shark, the three fishermen had to face their own fears: Chief Brody’s fear of the water, Quint’s fear of putting on a lifejacket, Hooper’s fear of… not being able to crush beer cans(?). Within the hugely symbolic arena of the sea, we have these individuals journeying their emotions / psychologies, to battle their demons. So perhaps that's where Jaws resonated with the American psyche, this fear of a seemingly pernicious enemy that they wanted to go out and conquer, that threatened to creep up on them and devour its citizens, turning their shores the blood-red of a socialistic ideology.
7.    There’s probably a lot of spoilers in this blog.
8.    Forgive any inaccuracies I may write about what lines were delivered, or where moments I mention appear in the narrative.

Although I’ve decided I like the film, there are three things about it I didn’t like, although I changed my mind on one of them, so really it’s only two:

1.    I didn’t like the line where Christian Grey suddenly said “I’m not the right man for you”. It was like… you’ve only just gone for a coffee. Why all so serious all so sudden? His actions of walking away suddenly, and his line where he was saying it wasn’t a good idea that they’d gone for a coffee, even just his reaction when she said she was a romantic, were all sufficient to portray this sentiment. It didn’t need spelling out so crassly.
2.    Rita ‘I never heard of Estonia’ Ora. Bless her, she’s great at delivering pop songs and all that, but when I was watching her in 50 Shades I just felt like cringing. And she only has a few lines. It’s like you’re throwing a nice party, but you decided to invite ‘that one friend’ and they turn up and you’re thinking ‘please don’t fuck this up, please don’t fuck this up’. Or you’re 1-0 up at half time, it’s a slender lead, but you’re cruising, and you decide to bring on Djimi Traoré or Tom Cleverley for the second half, and every time he has the ball you think it’s all going to go tits up. I don't know why I thought that, Rita. I think it's just this whole pop star persona thing you have and it seeming incongruous here.
3.    I didn’t like how Christian Grey always managed to turn up out the blue, how he spent so much time on Anastasia when he’s evidently a really important and busy guy. I didn’t really buy that. But then I stepped back and thought about it, pondered on the concepts and themes I think the director was bringing forth, and then I realized that this was actually a really good idea.


Mr Grey is The Devil

All these years working on Shadows of a Stranger have given me good Photoshop skills.
Christian Grey, a man of such evident “wealth and taste” appears out of the blue to Anastasia with a seemingly supernatural ability. At the club, at her apartment, even when she’s away in Georgia visiting her mum. Whatever really important work Christian does, he was able to drop it all to go see her. But… that is the nature of the Devil. Speak of the Devil…as she was doing with her mum… and he shall appear. I think in the book it explained how he knew where she was - I think it was a good choice to not explain it in the film.

Now, there are some satanic imagery and concepts that people have picked up on. The Red Room of Pain is a blatant slap in the face (if you'll excuse the expression) – yes, this is Christian’s hell: red sheets, red rope, its intimidating atmosphere, nasty looking torture devices. A lot of people got this. 

She got it too.
Between the two trips to the cinema I saw a tweet from an American Christian (a follower of Christ I mean, not someone into BDSM), and he asked “have you noticed that Satan’s favourite colour is grey?” (He didn't spell it like that though of course.) According to him, having no black and white standards is apparently dangerous.

It was a thought that stuck with me, not because I agreed with what he was saying, but because I wondered if there was more to the Satanic overtones in the film than I’d picked up the first time.

There was a lot of subtle stuff I found… For instance, when Christian shows Anastasia her room he says “he will be downstairs”. Incidentally, I love the wallpaper in her room – a paradise-like pattern but with the detail of a caged bird within the foliage. This detail is framed nicely above Anastasia as she sits on the bed. A subtle hint from Christian that this is her life – caged in his paradise? But if you look closely, I’m sure the door to that cage is open… Anastasia can fly out when she wants to. At that point in the film she’s still free to flee. Maybe the door never closes though. Maybe Christian’s submissives choose to be in the cage.

One of the most common narratives with the Devil is the business of selling your soul to him, the Devil writing out a contract where he promises you power or riches, and in return you give him your soul. Essentially, this is the narrative of 50 Shades, and the contract becomes a prominent part of the film. Anastasia is completely seduced by his power, charm and wealth, by that whole lifestyle, but if she wants to be part of that world, she has to give herself to him, to become his slave, to endure the torture he wants to inflict on her.

And for an eternity in hell I will give you my pencil.
The hellish symbols start to become more frequent when a red lipstick-wearing Anastasia agrees to Christian’s way at the graduation ceremony. They return to her apartment, and there he spanks her, against a backdrop of glowing orange curtains. The detail in the curtains is cleverly patterned so that in the blur of the focusing, they appear like flames. This is right after Christian gives her a bright red sports car as well.
I'm not Jeremy Clarkson so I don't know if this was the exact model or not.

The next morning (I think) Anastasia is leaving and picks up a red apple (and takes a bite I think). The Garden of Eden? Anastasia eating the forbidden fruit that the snake told her to eat? She'd asked him to 'enlighten' her, and says later she 'wants more'.

We see another flame-like backdrop, and more obviously so, when Anastasia has her business meeting with Christian to discuss the contract. Here she is in hell making deals with the Devil.

It’s subtly there in the boathouse too – this time only lighting half their faces, the other half in a bluey-green. Both of these characters are torn, both putting one foot within each other's world. Anastasia is wearing a peachy coloured dress too, rather than the whites she wore before - she's on her way to turning red.

Christian has strange scars on his chest. “Are they burns?” Anastasia asks.

After Anastasia is stepping into Christian’s world, we hear a cover of Bruce Spingsteen’s I’m on Fire playing in the background. Another symbolic song we hear as they dance, the scene beginning precisely when Frank Sinatra sings how “the heat is stifling in here”.

Indeed, Mr Grey is described by Anastasia’s roommate as “hot”, and his brother describes him as “Mr Warmth”.

Christian was abandoned by his ‘creators’ too, just like Lucifer.

In Georgia, Anastasia and her mum start to drink bright red drinks. Mr Grey appears once more.

Getting the picture yet? The devil's favourite colour is red, not grey.

Oh yes, and what is Anastasia’s safe word? Red.

This colour isn't red. It's blue. But with some clever jiggery-pokery I can use my chroma key skills to make it any colour you want. So what I'm saying is you're essentially looking at red here too.
This whole Mr-Grey-is-really-Satan thing is confirmed at the end when Anastasia steps into the red room of pain and asks him to do his worst. What does he do? He whips her. Six times.

My favourite scene of the film is the ending. I love its cold bluntness. When Anastasia runs away from him at the end of the film we see that it’s raining, symbolically extinguishing his hellish flames of his world as she extricates herself from his control.

One of the main criticisms of the film is that the characters aren’t realistic, there’s no chemistry, they’re played badly etc. etc. I wonder if this is the point though, that it fits along the idea of these characters being archetypes that we’re supposed to place ourselves in. Christian the Devil, the dashing prince, Anastasia the meek damsel, the virginal Eve in the Garden of Eden. 50 Shades is meant to be a fairytale. As the sharper critics point out, we see this idea backed up by certain backdrops, like when Christian is explaining about Mrs Robinson, set against the wooded setting you'd see in Hansel and Gretel or Red Riding Hood or any fairytale you like. To me 50 Shades is a modern day fairytale, so we shouldn't expect any realism.

The film opens with clouds… the place where EL James’s head evidently was when she wrote the book. In this film we’re in the realm of fantasy then, in fairytale.

But maybe there are, indeed, shades of grey in this film. Just like we saw the contrasting colours on their faces in the boathouse, perhaps Mr Grey isn’t the Devil after all.

Christian Grey is God
These Photoshop skills get even better.
Well, just look at his name for God’s sake. Christian. Christ… although he's a Christ who perhaps means something totally different when he says to ‘turn the other cheek’. The film starts on those grey clouds I mentioned, a shot of the ‘heavens’. We later see Christian taking Anastasia gliding, soaring like an angel in the clouds.

He has a grand building towering over the city, an omniscient vision over everything.

Perhaps Christian’s contract isn’t a contract, but just a set of ‘commandments’ that Anastasia must obey to please him. Christian, then, seems the capricious, insecure God that Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins talk about, demanding his people to be slaves and submit themselves to him and his terms.

Christian Grey is a philanthropist and donates money to African countries (although… atheists might tell the writers that God doesn’t care about African countries).

Christian himself was physically tortured, like Christ was.

Those Romans. Kinky sods.
Like I mentioned, Anastasia’s room is decorated like paradise, she later eats the fruit, Anastasia is instructed to be naked in his play room. Christian tells her not to be ashamed of her nakedness too, all overtones of the Garden of Eden story.

Maybe all this bondage is actually some sort of flagellation to bring them closer to God, or whatever the reason religious people do that stuff. 

So where the hell does Christian Grey stand? Is he God? Is he the Devil? Or perhaps, like the title suggests, he exists within those 50 shades between black and white. Perhaps good and evil are one and the same thing. 
Good and evil make such a lovely couple.

There's polarity everywhere you look these days and we're often made to think things are black and white. You're either a God-loving believer or a science-loving atheist. You're either a proactive patriot or a lily-livered liberal. We're often being told we have to stand for something. You see a news report on something and regular folk are interviewed on the street for their opinion on it, and it appears that everyone instantly has an opinion on everything.

And yet, there's polarity within this polarity... so many things also seem so confusing. If you caught Charlie Brooker's end of year review, 2014 Wipe, you'd have heard him talking about how governments in conjunction with the media are deliberately confusing its people, presenting conflicting accounts so that we don't know where to stand, don't know who the enemies are, don't know who the heroes are. Shades of grey are all around.

One theme in 50 Shades that I think is very pertinent is the idea of power, and specifically corporations, how wealth seduces people, and how Anastasia, like many others, becomes a slave to these giant power-wielding corporations such as Grey Enterprises. Anastasia graduates from college in the film and so is on the verge of stepping into the world of work. Mr Grey even offers her an internship.

The torment of her relationship with Christian Grey reflects the ongoing torment many others have, the desire for such power against the desire to be ‘free as a bird’ and not willingly stepping into the cage as some megalomaniac’s plaything. So many companies that we do business with ask us to sign contracts, so many ask for loyalty and give us rewards. So maybe there we have our real demon, the corporations, and both its CEOs and its customers are the victims. It’s our own hell we’ve created, and maybe we're all willingly walking into Christian Grey’s red room of pain.
And look at that. I wrote a whole blog on 50 Shades without saying Mr Grey will see you now.

P.S. It might be that EL James would say she was trying to say this all along with her book, but I'm not going to read it a second time.

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